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Ezra Pound defined literature as "news that STAYS news." If so, then the Bard's Hamlet is hot off the presses. I've read it who knows how many times, and seen umpteen productions, and am convinced it's a castle made of words. Each scene's a corridor, down which new rooms open, and even newer ones lie ahead.

Prince Hamlet uses the word "infinite" three times, twice in the beginning, once near the end. And yet he's obsessed with how finite everything is: to be and then not to be - is there an "undiscovered country" beyond or are we just clay that "might stop a hole to keep the wind away"?

Except when camping out and hypnotized by the stars above, most people keep these speculations at bay. Hamlet's problem, well one of them, is he can't. A ghost - his father? some hellish fiend? - delivers the worst possible news and then demands the impossible: his father was murdered. To avenge it, Hamlet must kill the king without tainting himself in the process. Swim, in other words, but don't get wet.

But you don't kill people. Least of all, in this hierarchical universe, a king. Before he can act, Hamlet must do double detective work: find out if the ghost tells the truth and, if so, find the true meaning of life.

Intrepid Shakespeare's opening night was not without problems and glitches. Actors were, or were not, invested in a scene. Some tended to rush lines, or merely speak without conveying the sense that thought had prompted the words.

What the production does well is tell the story clearly. Like the phases of the moon, the play (and the staging) moves with a discernible logic. Director Christy Yael keeps focus where it should be, and the downward flow becomes both inevitable and stark.

Like the production in general, Sean Cox's Hamlet had "see him in a week" quality. Some of his scenes sparkled, early ones in particular, like the "nunnery" exchange with Ophelia, where his words and thoughts fuse into spontaneous verbal spears. The monologues, though always competent, at times lacked intellectual energy, and some of his emphases were "anti-choices," too obvious attempts to go against traditional readings. Overall, he and several others, had yet to give themselves over to the play.

Among those who did, Jennifer Eve Thorn's Ophelia goes credibly mad, in part because for this Ophelia there are no precedents to imitate. She just comes apart in pieces.

(One of the "rooms" the production explores: Hamlet drives women crazy - first Ophelia in the nunnery scene, later his mother, when he reveals her husband's culpability. Another "room": all the men except the King are big-eyed control freaks about female virginity. If Polonius, Laertes, and even Hamlet had their way, Denmark would de-populate).

Tom Stephenson plays the King as a paranoid politico who, for the first time in his life, has opened his heart to a woman. Then committed regicide to attain his bliss.

Queen Gertrude is the Lee Harvey Oswald of Shakespearean characters. What does she know? When did she know it? Debra Wanger portrays the Queen with a regal surface that may be genuine. At Elsinore, women are so far outside the loop that she may not suspect foul play. When she finally does, she begins to crumble.

Danny Campbell smartly plays Polonius as an adult with some funny mannerisms (and not the other way around, which is often the case). Jim Chovick combines stillness with strength as the Ghost and the Player King. Tom Hall's soft-spoken Horatio is pitch-perfect. And Eddie Yaroch shoots comic energy into the gravedigger scene, his gruff deliveries topped by a bowler hat a la Waiting for Godot (effective modern dress costumes by Beth Merriman and Erin Petersen).

Sean Fanning's spare, gray marble set - with ghosts roaming above - shows once again why he's such an in-demand designer.


San Dieguito Academy, 800 Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas, playing through February 17.

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